Authenticity Index

Balaji’s Food For Thought - Sep 2, 2014

Balaji Krishnamurthy
Leadership & Culture

The recent tragedy of Robin Williams elicited much conversation in cyber space. While much of the conversation was probably respectful and filled with fond memories of the talented comedian, there were a number of posts in social media that were outright rude and mean. So much so, that his daughter, Zelda Williams, had to close her Twitter account. She could not take it anymore.

Why do people feel comfortable saying in cyber space what they would probably never say face to face?

Do we all revert to a more primitive state when in the shield of anonymity? This month’s topic is motivated by “Dealing with Digital Cruelty,” a recent Sunday Review article by Stephanie Rosenbloom in the New York Times.

Last winter I was in Chicago during one of their many frigid cold days. Riding the CTA, their local train network, I explored with a Chicago native his reactions to one of my crazy ideas.

What if, I wondered, ridership on the CTA network was purely on an honor system?

People are expected to buy a ticket, but CTA authorities will never ask you to produce a ticket. What percentage of the ridership will actually buy a ticket, I inquired of my friend. My cynical friend had this immediate response. “In Chicago? Maybe 10% will buy a ticket. All you tourists will buy one.” I then wondered how that behavior would change if there were some visible public evidence of having bought a ticket. Say, your face glows red for the next two hours. So, everybody on the train who had bought a ticket would be glowing red. What percentage of the ridership would now buy a ticket, I asked my friend. His response, “Upwards of 90%.”

What changed between the two hypothetical scenarios? Transparency! Transparency is the best form of accountability.

Let’s try another thought experiment.

Imagine two strangers, both decent individuals, walking up simultaneously to the front doors of a tall skyscraper on a cold windy day in downtown Chicago. Would you not expect that one would hold the door open for the other? Yet, imagine the behavior of those same two individuals that evening in rush hour traffic, both behind the wheels of their cars, comfortably seated with their tinted windows and heated seats, driving in two different lanes merging into one. How do they behave? Each would be trying to edge ahead of the other. Why the difference in their behavior? Transparency versus anonymity.

Anonymity can occur even when people can see you, if you are an anonymous individual to the people around you.

My wife recalls a story many holidays ago when our children were home. Peppermint-candy ice cream was a popular holiday tradition and often in short supply at the local grocery store. Laboring to find one in the shelves of the freezer isle, my wife commented to another shopper that just arrived at the freezer shelves that she was looking for one and how difficult it was to find peppermint-candy ice cream. That fellow shopper spotted a stray carton in the adjacent shelf. Right in front of my wife, she grabbed it and away she went. Part infuriated and part frustrated, my wife abandoned her search and walked away. As she was standing at the cashier line, a man walked up to her, handing her a carton of the ice cream, asking, “Ma’am, is this what you were looking for?”

Would the lady have behaved the same had she been acquainted with my wife? What about that good Samaritan?

He was an anonymous bystander who chose to do what he would have done had he been involved. Just during the few days over which I was writing and editing this article, an interesting thing happened to me that prompted me to add this last bit. As I was settling into my aisle seat on an airplane flight, I noticed a mother in the middle seat two rows down trying to calm her little child that was sitting in the middle seat next to me. Clearly, the two had been separated. I offered to trade seats with the mother. As I squeezed into that cramped middle seat I wondered, would I have done that if that whole transaction were anonymous? I don’t know.

Do we all behave differently when our behavior is transparent versus anonymous?

How often does that occur? Are some people more likely to be authentic in their behavior, whether or not it is transparent? This caused us to suggest an authenticity index: The percentage of instances of anonymous behaviors that would have been the same had the situation been transparent. We posit that some people have a high authenticity index while others don’t fare as well. Some people are just fundamentally nice, some are nice because it is the right thing to do and yet others are nice because it is what the society expects us to do. The authenticity index of the people in each of those three classes is likely to be distinguishable.

By the way, don’t confuse authenticity with integrity.

I would like to think that most of our readers would not cheat or steal, whether or not somebody is looking. Yet, my cynicism shows in my belief that many of us will behave as alluded above when two lanes merge in rush hour traffic. A drug dealer who cheats and lies might have a high authenticity index, because he cheats and lies whether somebody is looking or not. Although there is a difference between authenticity and integrity, there is commonality as well. Those of you who participated in our Tool Telecon last week, where we talked about Three Bars of Integrity, will notice some similarities between the third bar of integrity and authenticity.

In keeping with the provocative nature of these articles, let me confess a personal belief with which many disagree.

I personally do not care for anonymous feedback. For example, in seeking written feedback at the end of our workshops, I insist that people identify themselves. I acknowledge that some people might be inhibited from saying what they really think. Do I care to receive the opinion of people with a low authenticity index, I ask myself.

In reflecting on this topic, ask yourself, “What is your authenticity index?”

Even if you cannot associate an absolute number, you can probably compare two individuals and examine who might have a higher authenticity index. Under what circumstances do you behave differently when anonymous? Why? Just that self-reflection can cause you to become intentional. We are not suggesting that you change your behavior, just that you become intentional about your behavior. Intentionality causes you to become the leader you want to be.

Food for Thought is our way of sharing interesting concepts on corporate leadership and management with others who might find it useful. The thoughts offered are intended to be controversial and thought provoking. They are intended to help our readers intentionally realize their potential, what we call Potentionality.